We asked Rab Noakes to write down his thoughts on Arthur Argo and his legacy. It’s a lovely read about a great man.
I am honoured to nominate, and delighted to welcome, Arthur Argo to the Hands Up for Trad Hall of Fame.
Few people are more deserving of this honour. The reason for that is, and I don’t think this is exaggeration, it’s unlikely we would have the lively interest in Scotland’s folk song traditions we have today had it not been for the stimulation Arthur gave that interest in previous decades.
Arthur was born in 1935 and his own interest was determined in part by his ancestry. He was the great grandson of the esteemed folksong collector Gavin Greig aka The Buchan Dominie. From the early ’50s onwards he involved himself in the emerging folk-song revival connecting with the likes of Hamish Henderson and Ken Goldstein, not to mention the illustrious presence of the traditional singers on his doorstep such as Jimmy MacBeath and Jeannie Robertson.
As a young man, in 1961 Arthur made his way to New York City, to Greenwich Village, where he witnessed that seismic folksong scene close-up. There he spent time with many of the key artists in that scene including a far-from-home Jean Redpath. He also made a record himself whilst there, a LP of bawdy songs called ‘A wee thread o’ blue’. He came back to Scotland with a fresh focus on his interest in folksong and Bob Dylan’s entry in his autograph book (a conversation-stopper in its day).
He was instrumental in creating and maintaining the stature of the Aberdeen Folksong Club. Situated in the heartland of the lowland song repertoires, the club reflected that in all ways. He also played a major part in issuing a regular, club and song-based booklet ‘Chapbook’.
Arthur was a journalist and became a BBC radio producer. In his time at Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow he was responsible for a range of programmes including many with folk music-related subject matter.
From the mid-to-late-’60s Arthur promoted many folk music events and artists. Nearly all of the Scottish-based people who were what Billy Connolly describes as ‘the second wave’ were nurtured by Arthur. They included, among others, The Humblebums (with BillyC of course), The McCalmans, Barbara Dickson, and me, Rab Noakes.
To me he was always heartily generous with his knowledge and extremely good company. I spent many pleasant nights with him as he imparted knowledge and played me gems from his large record and tape collection. I can say without doubt he introduced me to things I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.
An example of his production skills is evident in the way I perceived him encouraging Aly Bain. Arthur persuaded this marvellous young fiddler from Shetland to come south with a view to working in folk clubs. There weren’t many fiddlers in folk clubs in those days so they realised it could be a good idea to team Aly with something, or someone. I remember sharing a gig myself with him as did others. Eventually it was a pairing with the equally marvellous Mike Whellans which came to life. Mike’s guitar accompaniment was singular but also redolent of the Shetland sound of Peerie Willie Johnson. Aly and Mike worked everywhere and eventually formed The Boys of the Lough with another duo, Robin Morton and Cathal McConnell.
Aly Bain is now a national treasure. Fiddles are everywhere, often with guitar accompaniment. Those things can be seen as a major legacy of Arthur Argo.
But, as I touched on earlier, his legacy really is the fact we have the interest we have today in folk music and song at all. It would have happened without him but certainly not the way it did, with the people it did.
Various developments in his personal and professional life saw him return to Aberdeen in the early 1970s. He continued to work for BBC radio but his presence and influence in the folk music world eventually became less prominent. Never a physically strong man, he had suffered polio in his youth, Arthur sadly died young, in 1981, in his mid-40s.
He is survived by his sisters Frances and Edyth, his children Siobhan and Keiran as well as their mother Ruth.
He never did things so he would be remembered or be regarded as being significant so it falls to us who knew him, and to all of us who benefit from his legacy, to remember him and honour him in a way fitting to the massive contribution to the cultures of Scotland made by this loon, the essential Arthur Argo.
Rab Noakes 2016